MALAGA, Spain — Some Catholics may be bracing for a new onslaught of confusion about Christ, his teachings and his Church when The Da Vinci Code movie opens May 19.
But few may be aware of a challenge on another front: a growing genre of books that takes Church history and gives it a fictional twist under the auspices of entertainment and enlightenment.
The crop of books set to be released this year — some reportedly researched and concocted even before Dan Brown’s bestseller hit bookstores — are written by American, Spanish and British authors; all are being translated into dozens of languages and are set for large first runs with high profile publishers.
Most focus on the supposed deep, dark secrets of the Church, such as crusades against rival sects, the lost treasure of the Knights Templar, and what really happened at the Last Supper.
The Register interviewed three authors of these religious thrillers to find out whether their books may further malign the Church.
Javier Sierra, an author from Malaga, Spain, promises to “reveal the unknown secrets” behind Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper” in his novel The Secret Supper.
“Of course, my book is a fictional work, but based upon real documents, bibliographical sources and characters of 15th-century Italy,” Sierra told the Register. “My idea is to offer a possible explanation to the anomalies included by Leonardo in his painting. And if I use a novel, and not a historical essay, it is because Leonardo did not explain ‘The Last Supper’ in any of his notes.”
Those “anomalies,” according to Sierra, include the fact that neither Jesus nor his apostles have halos, that Jesus is not consecrating the Eucharist, that there is no meat on the table (there should be a Passover lamb), and that there is no chalice. They correspond with the beliefs of the Cathars, members of a heretical religious sect that lived in southern France and northern Italy in the Middle Ages and were dualists — believing that a good god of spirit was continually at war with an evil god of matter.
Sierra surmises that Da Vinci incorporated Cathar elements into the painting because “it was a challenge to paint a Cathar scene in the very heart of a Dominican priory and the Milanese headquarters of the Inquisition,” he said.
But Bruce Boucher, the Art Institute of Chicago’s director of European Decorative Arts, Sculpture and Ancient Art, said that Sierra’s claims were highly unlikely.
“I don’t think that the Dominicans — who were considered models of orthodoxy — would allow Leonardo to introduce schismatic beliefs into ‘The Last Supper,’ commissioned for their refectory. Patrons had their own ideas of what should be in a painting,” Boucher said.
“There was a Florentine tradition of painting scenes of the Last Supper for convents and priories that stressed the sharing of a meal between Christ and his disciples — it was an imitation of Christ and his disciples when the Dominicans came together for meals.”
Author Kate Mosse splits her time between homes in West Sussex, England, and Carcassonne, France, and has set her novel Labyrinth in Languedoc in southwest France during two different time periods: the early 13th century and present day.
The plot revolves around three parchments bound into books, said to contain an ancient secret dating from 2,000 years before the Christian era in ancient Egypt; the books are lost during the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars and rediscovered some 800 years later.
“In Labyrinth, I was not writing about the Church or deliberately seeking a religious theme, more that it was the place and the history of the region that inspired what is an adventure thriller,” Mosse said.
“The history of the Catholic crusade against the Cathars is well documented and not under dispute. At the heart of Labyrinth is a respect for faith and what it means, although there is certainly a criticism of intolerance and the inability of any organized religion to allow others to follow their own morality and faith.”
However, medieval historian Thomas Madden, chairman of the history department at Saint Louis University, cautions against misconceptions about the history of the Church and the Cathars.
“Catharism flourished because the secular lords either ignored the heresy or actively promoted it,” Madden said. “In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III called a crusade against those lords.
“It is simply untrue that this crusade was a ‘genocide’ or that it was even a way to destroy the cult. Instead, it was a means to replace those lords who refused to see to the spiritual health of their people,” he said.
Madden stressed that after the crusade there were still plenty of Cathars.
“The heresy vanished, though, under the subsequent efforts of the Inquisition. The vast majority of Cathars, instructed by the inquisitors, were restored to the Catholic faith.”
The Templar Legacy
The search for the lost Templar treasure in a little town in Southern France is the plot for Steve Berry’s The Templar Legacy. The author and lawyer from Camden County, Ga., was sure to include a writer’s note at the end of his book to help his readers distinguish between fact and fiction. He wrote that he created the Gospel of Simon for his book and used an alternate concept of how Christ may have been resurrected that is found in Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity by John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, N.J.
Berry went on to say in the note: “The conflicts between the four books of the New Testament relative to the resurrection have challenged scholars for centuries. The fact that only one crucified skeleton has ever been found does raise questions, as do many comments and statements made throughout history.
“One in particular, attributed to Pope Leo X (1513-1521) caught my attention. … His statement is short, simple, and strange for the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, it was the spark that generated this novel. ‘It has served us well, this myth of Christ.’”
Father John Paul Echert, Scripture scholar and pastor of Holy Trinity and St. Augustine parishes in South St. Paul, Minn., clarified some of Berry’s contentions.
“The statement falsely attributed to Pope Leo X, ‘It has served us well, this myth of Christ,’ was alleged long ago by an apostate English Carmelite, John Bale, in his 16th-century satire, The Pageant of the Popes,” Father Echert said. “There is no basis for this attribution and rarely, if ever, is any context for the statement provided. Never has any legitimate papal text been cited to substantiate this allegation.”
Father Echert also addressed Berry’s comments about the resurrection in the Gospels:
“With regards to seeming conflicts between details of the various Gospels, including the resurrection accounts, the faithful Christian must affirm that the Bible is the Word of God, and therefore free from all error, for God cannot deceive or be the author of error.”
The Jerusalem Bible, in a note to Matthew 28:10, says that “these very divergencies of tradition are far better witnesses than any artificial or contrived uniformity to the antiquity of the evidence and the historical quality of all these manifestations of the risen Christ.”
When asked about causing confusion for readers, Berry said, “I would certainly hope readers understand that The Templar Legacy is a work of fiction, concocted out of my imagination. A story. Meant to entertain you. Nothing more.
“But if at the same time the story stimulates the mind, causes the reader to question, then great,” Berry said. “That’s what Dan Brown did so well. He made people think — and is that so wrong?”
Christians can do their own research about the groups or eras that novels and non-fiction books spotlight — and help to catechize others with their deeper knowledge of Church history.
“Rather than only worrying about The Da Vinci Code knock-offs, worry about non-fiction books, too — you’ll find many full of poor information,” said Sandra Miesel of Indianapolis, journalist and co-author with Carl Olson of The Da Vinci Hoax. Miesel suggests reading up on the Knights Templar in Peter Partner’s The Murdered Magicians: The Templars and Their Myth.
Madden recommends getting a dependable history of Catharism, The Cathars by Malcolm Barber.
When encountering a relative, friend or coworker who has been misled about the Church by historico-religious thrillers, De-Coding Da Vinci author Amy Welborn, from Fort Wayne, Ind., encourages Christians to see it as an opportunity to share knowledge and faith.
“It is not a time to judge or be fearful,” she said. “If someone is really into this, don’t run away or avoid conversation; invite the person into discussion and suggest reading other books.”
Olson, of Eugene, Ore., said he sees it as a spiritual battle over souls.
“Throwing out knowledge isn’t the only solution. We need factual responses but we also need true Christian responses to these souls who are troubled by the Church and are struggling with questions.”
Annamarie Adkins is based in
St. Paul, Minnesota.